Deep Adaptation: Framing After Denial

This section is as good as the rest of the paper and you should totally read it. But it is too sad for me to write about here.  I can hope that Dr. Bendell has noticed something universal when he writes (on this other page):

…I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead … I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward.

That would be nice.

Will continue with Agenda, Research Futures and Conclusions in good time.  I’d like to finish this paper, because now that you’re all back, I have new blog themes (within CA water, of course) for us to contemplate.

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Deep Adaptation: Systems of Denial, interpretive and implicative denial.

On a different page than any I have mentioned before, Dr. Bendell writes:

Some scholarship has looked at the process of denial more closely. Drawing on sociologist Stanley Cohen, Foster (2015) identifies two subtle forms of denial – interpretative and implicative. If we accept certain facts but interpret them in a way that makes them “safer” to our personal psychology, it is a form of “interpretative denial”. If we recognise the troubling implications of these facts but respond by busying ourselves on activities that do not arise from a full assessment of the situation, then that is “implicative denial”. Foster argues that implicative denial is rife within the environmental movement, from dipping into a local Transition Towns initiative, signing online petitions, or renouncing flying, there are endless ways for people to be “doing something” without seriously confronting the reality of climate change.

I am not going to do anything radical, like go read Foster (2015). That is not the blogging way. But I will latch on to the concept of ‘implicative denial.’ Because that shit is real.

To the extent that people take their cues from what official California is doing, when the State is dicking around instead of facing hard things, the implicative denial is contagious.  This is why it was (and is) so pernicious that the State Board wouldn’t ban new plantings of orchards during the drought years. They were telling us all that it was serious enough for every one of us to undertake moderate hassle, but their actions conveyed that it wasn’t serious enough for them to avert new, consistent, decades-long new water demand*. When people get two conflicting messages about how seriously to take the drought, denial will urge them to the weaker message.

Implicative denial also explains my impatience with each administration setting up a new water philosophy (CALFED, co-equal, portfolio, multi-benefit).  Seriously? Defining that and then working on a framework, performance measures, indices, alignment and re-org?  That’s what you are doing with your time? Now? In this era? Here, folks.  Here’s your resilience portfolio:

  • Zone 2M irrigated acres to feed CA vegetable calories; make sure they get water every year. Set additional 1M acre increments to get water depending on the water year. Work from east to west in the Valley. Turn the entire Delta to sequestering carbon. (ag)
  • Set instream flows 70% of unimpaired flows in every river. (enviro)
  • Set 55gppd for every person’s personal water use. Source those as close to the use as possible. Pay the staggering costs of replacing our aged-out infrastructure. (urban)
  • Get us out of the NFIP, set up new CFID to get people priced out of floodplains, pay for setback levees. (flood)
  • Supplement CIMIS with a new whole-state, public access remote sensing tool (data)

There.  That would get you 90% of the way to resilience until society collapses in my lifetime for thirty years. Now you can stop dithering over what the portfolio really means and start doing the necessary work.  In Water, Jerry Brown wasted his two terms. We do not have time for another administration to waste on implicative denial.

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Deep Adaptation: Systems of Denial, “four particular insights”.

Systems of Denial was one of my favorite sections of Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper.  I can’t improve on it, but I can apply it to CA water politics. Again, I have to assume you have the paper to hand; I can’t provide much of it here. I’ll start by looking at his four insights about what happens when we communicate the state of the climate. (Last full paragraph of some page.)

Insight 1: I read this aspect of denial as a way of refusing to acknowledge the extent of how bad it is becoming. We’ve seen the greatest expression of this in the water dinosaurs, who believe that we should build new dams, because if you put concrete across a river, it is necessarily true that new water will arrive to fill it. Fortunately, that mindset is dying out, now largely held by a sidelined bunch of old cranks. But the truth (even if we don’t include near-term societal collapse) hasn’t sunk in either. From here on out, we will steadily have fewer water resources than we have had.  It will cost a whole lot of money to adjust our infrastructure just to provide what we have now. We will have disasters that knock out something we need and love, and will limp along without it afterwards. All of our modeling and future scenarios should reflect that. For example, it is no longer a good idea to do robust decision making because even if things turn out well, the robust choices are still the good ones!happyface! We can skip that part and do the robust choices because we know it will not turn out well. The uncertainty has closed; we can quit modeling the mild climate change future scenarios.  That level of acceptance hasn’t sunk in yet through agency practices; reports that do not support techno-optimism are released quietly, if at all.

Insight 2: Dr. Bendell writes

Second, bad news and extreme scenarios impact on human psychology. We sometimes overlook that the question of how they impact is a matter for informed discussion that can draw upon psychology and communications theories. … That serious scholars or activists would make a claim about impacts of communication without specific theory or evidence suggests that they are not actually motivated to know the effect on the public but are attracted to a certain argument that explains their view.

I cannot tell you how desperately the agencies need in house social scientists. Apparently, I am genuinely unable tell you that, because I have tried three times before with no success. Perhaps in 2030, I will make another plea for in house social scientists.

Insight 3: 

A third insight from the debates about whether to publish information on the probable collapse of our societies is that sometimes people can express a paternalistic relationship between themselves as environmental experts and other people whom they categorise as “the public”. That is related to the non-populist anti-politics technocratic attitude that has pervaded contemporary environmentalism. It is a perspective that frames the challenges as one of encouraging people to try harder to be nicer and better rather than coming together in solidarity to either undermine or overthrow a system that demands we participate in environmental degradation. (emphasis mine)

This was pervasive during the recent drought. So much bullshit about residential water conservation, imposing extensive mental burdens and chores on nearly every Californian.  Infinite praise for their altruistic response! All so they don’t look over at our unimaginably stupid water rights system and think, ‘the fuck?’ I said during the drought and I’ll say it again: one day 99.9% of Californians are going to realize they could revise water rights instead of carrying their  shower water out to their roses one more time, and that day cannot come soon enough.

Insight 4: I liked this discussion of despair and the appropriate role of hope when it really actually is this bad. Bendell is right to mention looking to cultures that have experienced collapse to see what might work.  Mary Annaise Heglar is even more thorough and convincing. I do hope that there is transformation and openness to new ways of life after despair. Since, you know, we will do the despairing part either way.


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Still wrestling with the “portfolio approach”.

My objection to the Newsom administration’s “portfolio approach” is that a “portfolio approach” is a method, not a goal.  So in CA water, I can’t tell what goal the administration is trying to accomplish with their eight years*, besides not alienate anyone who might donate to Newsom‘s presidential campaign in 2026.

Dr. Lund endorses the “portfolio approach” here. The way he makes sense of the concept is by going through each issue area, stating a goal, and showing how to use a “portfolio approach” for that goal. Which, fine.  But that reinforces my impression that the “portfolio approach” only means “do all the relevant good things to achieve all the relevant good goals.”  This is not a useful directive! This is just bland good will. In terms Dr. Lund might appreciate, this is a model as expansive as the system it models.

I should stop fussing about this, because we are committed now and it doesn’t exclude any of my own priorities and it is too ambiguous to be wrong.  I look forward to seeing what the interagency group tasked with enforcing this comes up with. I predict a lot of talk about transparency and collaboration and maybe even synergies from the multi-benefitness!

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Deep Adaptation: Apocalypse Uncertain

I’ve been stuck on this section for a long time.  His direct address to the reader floored me the first time I read it, cost me sleep for several nights.  He writes:

Our norms of behaviour, that we call our “civilisation,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. The words I ended the previous paragraph with may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online. But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.

I mean, that used to be my favorite fiction. But reading that made it clear that I don’t want it applied to me. And yet, for hundreds of thousands, it is already true. We have discussed climate migrants here before; those are the intentional migrations, moving with some hope. But the wave of refugees from climate crises in Syria and Central America show what desperation driven migration is going to be like. My friend observed that it only took one migration event from a drought-and-war dissolved country to severely test Europe and America, bringing out bigotry that may yet break our countries. But we are going to have dozens of waves of desperation driven migration, from dry places, flooded places, places inundated by the sea. If we can’t handle even one of the early events… .

One reader wrote me that Bendell’s assertions are only that, no more authoritative than Bendell’s understanding.  With that in mind, I noticed another assertion with no support in Gov. Newsom’s Executive Order.  In the Whereases:

necessary and possible

Frankly, Bendell’s assertion that we’re all gonna die seems a lot more likely than the EO’s bland assertion that doing it all is necessary and possible.  Where’s the evidence that it is possible?! Our watersheds are not being kept alive on the water rations they have now and the resistance to transferring water from the monetary economy to the physical ecosystem is fierce. The only way I can make sense of that statement is that perhaps the vagueness of the collective nouns disguises a contraction of community, ag and industrial water use.

This is all I’ve got on the Apocalypse Uncertain section, despite its considerable effect on me. I am eagerly looking forward to the next section, because I’ve a lot to say on Systems of Denial and California water.

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Good luck, Ms. Vogel.

This interview killed me. My objection isn’t reasonable, because I bet the part I found objectionable was just mindless cliché. The author wrote it because all agendas are ambitious or something and they just let anyone put anything on the internet these days, so no one actually stopped to ask: ‘is or is not our new governor’s water Executive Order actually “ambitious”?’  Because if anyone had thought about it for a second, there is no fucking way to call the EO “ambitious”.  It is the purest representation of political vague fuzziness, designed to mean anything and offend no one.

The strongest parts of the Executive Order are reactions. “One tunnel” is a reaction to Gov. Brown’s overreach.  “Clean drinking water” is a reaction to the Community Water Center’s thirteen years of advocacy. The rest is a mash of all the good ideas in a broth of ‘we can all be friends’. Things that might take an actual stance are muddled by collective nouns, so any advocate can hope that the ‘portfolio’ will support their side.

I keep noticing that ‘portfolio approach’ and ‘multi-benefit’ are converses.  A portfolio approach does a bunch of things to achieve one goal.  (What is the goal of Crowfoot’s portfolio?  Fuck if I can tell.  All the good things!  Why not all of ’em!?) A multi-benefit approaches uses one project to get a bunch of things (all of them good, of course). I can’t decide whether the multi-benefit concept sounds newly desperate (like we need to start hitting some lotteries with our diminishing resources) or whether it is all the most predictable type of chasing water down the entropy slope.  The ‘portfolio’ part is, of course, language that hopes to evoke the parallel of money, standardized and interchangeable, cleanly managed by genius technocrats.

I suppose the ‘portfolio approach’ is an improvement over the last meaningless phrasing.  I mean, co-equal goals are only two things, but a portfolio could have way more than two, so that’s a super improvement.  We wasted fucking years on co-equal goals that still don’t mean anything, although we now know that water users certainly do not think they mean equal shares.  Now we’ll spend a few years pretending that “portfolio approach” means something when, by its very purpose, it can’t mean anything.  It is intended to be neutral enough to avoid conflict, which, in our real-world water system, means that it cannot have enough content to mean anything (besides “everything good”). I mean, as the Executive Order is written, what political interest does it exclude?

So now I have to spend months or years watching us all pretend that a ‘portfolio approach’ is a meaningful thing, and watching advocates jockey to define it so they can get access to the Newsom administration, and hearing that shit from our appointeds at conferences, and I do not mean to have a terrible attitude but when that talk starts, I’m highly likely to go out to the halls where I can at least chat with someone.

Last, I would like to illustrate by contrast what an actual “ambitious agenda” would be:

  • Reform CA’s water rights system.  Re-define “reasonable and beneficial” to reflect our existing and predicted scarcity.
  • Wrench our agricultural system out of capitalism, prioritizing California’s food security.
  • Acquire the CVP, merge with the SWP.  Get the project operators their own agency and merge the bureaucrats into a different unified agency.
  • Overhaul the 19th century institutions, especially the 7000 water districts in the state.
  • Restoring vigorous salmon runs throughout California. Remove a bunch of dams.
  • Expand/replace CIMIS with free open-data remote sensing for the entire state.

I could probably think of others, but I hope this sampling illustrates ambition for those who have forgotten it. I get that politicos are trapped in their realm of interacting through catch-phrases.  But we don’t have to be.



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This is a hard and stupid project.

Aw jesus.  I had nearly accomplished some lovely denial.

In her book about the death of her young child, Emily Rapp writes that parents love two things.  They love the child and they love the future of the child.  When they get a terminal diagnosis for their child, even while the child is still present, they suffer the loss of their child’s future.  I have always known that I had a kid for my own enjoyment, but I wasn’t really prepared for Catherine Ingram to be explicit about what ‘no future’ looks like.

Related pieces:

  • A profile of the Extinction Rebellion  I love the slogan “Tell the truth and act like it is real.”  It is the ‘acting like it is real’ that I never see done in state government, despite all our “climate leadership”.  I mean, maybe Jerry Brown is building a survival bunker in Colusa, which actually would be ‘acting like it is real’.  But calling small-scale technocratic systems like cap-and-trade a success while not, for example, banning all production of fossil fuels in CA signaled to all of us that climate change isn’t actually urgent.  Until the State is willing to act like it is real,  citizens won’t either.
  • Fuck these guys, and these ones too. These guys are fucking themselves, so we don’t have to.

It is really hard to live in two futures, so I will not be able to actually believe in near-term societal collapse and do productive work in Regular Life.  And I myself have been thinking of things that make sense in our current world.  Political pressures, ideas for Water, stuff like that.  I will keep going with Deep Adaptation, but if I myself don’t head for the hills, which is unlikely, I will probably revert to blogging about how Betty Yee should be governor next.  That doesn’t mean I don’t believe.  But I can’t manage to hold both futures in my head and I’m not brave enough to switch over yet.


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